Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rolling your own in insta-culture

It all starts with sound. Before we even become fixated on turning these tones into riffs, melodies, arrangements, or full songs, it's that sound that we react to and want to capture for ourselves. In my life, that sound has been Billy Corgan's guitar tone on Siamese Dream, Scott Walker's vocal quality, Lee Hazlewood's reverb, Vince Clarke's synth arpeggios, Richard D. James' synth leads, and hundreds of other sonic inspirations throughout the years. It's currently Johnny Jewel's vocal reverb and Alan Braxe's super heavy yet non-interfering mix compression. It'll be something else next week. Sonic inspiration works this way; we fall in love with new sounds and try to recreate them for ourselves, our attempts get filtered and mutated through our own equipment, experience (and especially lack thereof), and combined with all of the other little pieces we've taken from everywhere else, and then the resulting blend that we've created becomes part of the greater conversation of how records sound and how sounds work together.

Stephin Merritt, the greatest living songwriter, didn't have the Wrecking Crew and enormous echo chambers when he turned his Phil Spector pastiche into the first Magnetic Fields records; he had cheap early digital synths, cheap drum machines, and cheap digital reverb. The resulting blend still points to what it's "trying" to accomplish, but still ends up somewhere completely different and achieves mutated brilliance in the process.

Digging deep into interviews with music makers often reveals these sorts of "we really thought were making something that sounded like this but then it turns out it ended up way over here instead." There have been literal genres built entirely around people trying to just be Richard D. James, DJ Shadow, Tangerine Dream, Kevin Shields, Portishead, Wolf Eyes, etc., wholesale, without even bringing anything new to the table. In the best, and most memorable cases, something goes wrong in the process and the output is at least more interesting for the deviation.

In the nineties (in particular), creating your own sounds was a point of pride for music makers. Even if you were just attempting to ape someone else's tones, it was universally recognized and accepted that doing it "the hard way" - buying the same gear, learning to use it in the same ways and combinations - was somehow more respectable and "legitimate" than using the same synth presets or commercial sample banks. I've long thought this was a direct result of the enormous commercial success of the Yamaha DX-7, whose presets became so ubiquitous in pop culture that you couldn't use the machine without automatically invoking countless other songs, commercial jingles, and sitcom/movie themes. There was a similar backlash with the explosion of sampling CD's in the nineties, where suddenly aspiring producers didn't have to do all of that hard work of buying vinyl records, listening to them for hours, finding cool snippets, figuring out the best way to capture them using the combination of the turntable model and sampler that they owned, then figuring out the best way to manipulate the sound using the rest of their gear. Instead, they could buy Zero G or Vinylistics and bypass all that pesky prep work and get right to making music with the exact same "great" sounds as everyone else. As Ed Stratton, the guy responsible for the "Sgt. Peppers" of sample CD's says,

"Round about 1990 I purchased a sample CD for the first time – “Climax Vocal Collection” by Masterbits. Sample CDs were a totally new idea and I didn’t really know what to expect. I was totally disappointed in it as there wasn’t a single vocal on it I could use in my music. Seventy pounds down the drain. That hurt because by this time I was skint. Then it dawned on me that I had put together a huge collection of samples over the previous 4 years and could easily put together a sample CD of my own that would blow dance producers away. I realised that sounds were going to be a really big deal in the future and saw that I had an amazing opportunity to get into something huge right at the beginning."

Stratton's ideology is endemic of the slippery slope that lead to enabling an entire generation to skip all of the hard work of sound creation and get right to making tracks.

But wait - is this a bad thing or a good thing?

Cliches wouldn't exist if they weren't true most of the time, and adages are often revealed to be almost disturbingly profound with age and life experience. One of the old saws that I've constantly experienced is "___ is about the journey, not the destination." And yet, it feels like everything in our insta-, one-click culture has come to serve the destination, the output, the product, specifically by eliding the "journey" - the process of creating - as much as possible. Press this button to create output. Repeat. Always push content. Keep "relevant" in 24/7 hype cycle A.D.D. culture with minimal effort.

Counterpoint: My therapist tells me that my middle name out to be "should" because I'm so hung up on orthodox rules about how everything "should" be, and I get frustrated when those things don't conform to my orthodoxies and then I'm miserable. Pain (frustration) + nonacceptance (railing against the things that frustrate) = legit suffering (aghghghghgh!). I work my ass off every day to practice radical acceptance in every area of my life - which, if you know me personally, you know I utterly fail at 97% of the time [but I'd probably literally be dead if I wasn't constantly still working so hard at it]. A very simplified, but effective maxim that comes out of all of this is, "Which is more important - to be right, or to be effective?" [when those things are mutually exclusive, or at least feel so] I've definitely spent my whole life being "right" at the expense of being effective, and it's cost me a lot. So much that I'd probably stick a gun in my mouth if not for that aforementioned therapist and all he's done for me. I'm working very hard, and taking way longer than I'd like, to get that ship turned around.

What the hell does this LiveJournal interruption have to do with Usher, Horton!?

Usher's "love in this club" is one of my favorite pop songs of the past decade. It's so good. I murder it at karaoke when I'm drunk. It feels like a beautiful, epic Euro-trance ecstasy high in cinematic slow-motion with an utterly spiritual, whiny R&B male vocal. Its only low point is Young Jeezy coming in like black Tom Waits sounding like he's going to murder everyone in the club, even as that gated trance pad soars behind him. I'M PEAKING.

Here's what's hilarious about "love in this club" - it's two Garageband preset loops. Seriously. I'll let this  excitable young man attempt to demonstrate:

Clear as day. The song's producer, Polow da Don, offers up this hilarious defense of the, uh, "beatjacking" -

That’s not where I got them from, but they’re definitely in there,” Polow said of the sounds used in “Love in This Club”.

Though everyone had a good laugh about this artistic de-pantsing, and decried Polow as a no-talent bohack, he still made a zillion dollars off of it and continues to get tons of high-profile work. XXL magazine sums it up succinctly:

My understanding is that the loops in garageband and most of these other programs are available for use, without needing a license. That’s dope, it’s like free hit records waiting to be made, and you don’t have to clear anything.

Short of being able to actually get it into Usher's hands, anyone with a copy of Garageband could have assembled those two loops into the song and made a zillion. Talk about being "effective" vs. being "right!" The best craftsman, crate-digging, high-art hip hop beatmakers of all time (that would be J. Dilla, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier) have probably never made as much money in their entire careers as Polow did off of that one song (i'm not even googling soundscan numbers here).

Counterpoint to the counterpoint - this guy! Specifically the first 5 minutes, where Shawn talks about his Orthodox beat-making ideology. I don't make hip hop anymore - I was always a white corndog tourist - but I agree with him 100000% on pretty much every single word of his monologue. Then substitute pretty much any other genre of music and its most inspiring creators and classic tools, and I feel it doubly. Everything is starting to sound the same these days, and it's all too clean, too professional, and utterly lacking in individual touch or personality. It's lacking that mutation that occurs through the making process, because the process has been removed. Even Pitchfork, who is directly responsible for pushing hype cycle instaculture that demands this sort of process to keep up, is starting to take note of how it's destroying the personality and erasing the inherent sonic quality of entire genres. 

You know why DubSpot's instant trap music plugin was such a great April Fool's gag? Because it's barely a stretch compared to half of the software already out there, and there's probably literally someone actually developing that exact thing at this moment. 

But who cares about selling a zillion and making dough when we're talking about art, right? The art vs. commerce debate can go on forever, but the intrinsic value of making great shit that you're proud of cannot be compromised. Everything in my experience has taught me that taking the long way there - practicing the right processes instead of taking shortcuts, and learning how to actually make all of the sounds you want instead of just dialing up prefab ones - is infinitely more rewarding.

But it takes forever.

I mean forever - especially in a culture where it feels like everything is moving at light speed, where everyone in all mediums seems to just be crapping out content 24/7, where the hype cycle is just greedily chewing through this content and discarding it in favor of the next flavor of the week and devaluing it all and messing up our relationship to it. When you need reverb, and you're unwilling to just fire up a reverb plugin with a "record-ready preset," you have to buy a reverb unit, learn how to use it, listen to other records with the type of reverb effect you want, and then practice using it on your own song until it sounds right. Multiply this by every sound in the mix - every drum machine, synthesizer, vocal recording-  and every effect - compression, reverb, delay, distortion etc. -  and it just takes forever to learn how to use everything right and actually use it all together in a way that produces the result you want. I promise you that the end result is so worth it by the time you get there, and our musical landscape can only get better and less homogenous as a result.

But what if forever is too long, or actually, gulp, forever-ever?

I have two full-length records that are entirely finished, sitting on hard drive and 1/4" master tape. One is totally mixed and ready for release, but my stupid idiot orthodoxy means that I won't settle for releasing it on anything other than vinyl, which won't be happening any time soon. The other one is tracked but not mixed because it's everything I've been working toward for the past 17 years of making music, it's taken me the past 3 years just to track the way I wanted to, and I'm being utterly autistic about mixing it "right" (all "out of the box," mechanical reverb, optical compression, to tape) in ways that will be utterly undetectable to anyone else compared to if I just did the whole thing with plugins and bounced mp3's out to bandcamp or whatever. What if I die before this happens? What if the new flu pandemic wipes everyone out? What if we go to full nuclear war? What if nobody else ever hears the damned thing, did it ever really exist? What was the point of all of that dithering and perfectionism other than self-satisfaction that it was done the way I wanted it to be done? I...I have absolutely no idea what the right answer is, and I'm not sure if I've been "right," "effective," or "neither."

Counter-counter-point-point: William Gaddis only wrote five novels in his entire life. Grizzly Bear has almost made that many albums.